There’s a fantastic moment in the movie The Truman Show where young Truman tells his teacher that he wants to be an explorer like the great Magellan. His teacher pulls down a map and says cheerfully, “Oh, you’re too late! There’s nothing left to explore!”
It can sometimes feel this way when writing too. There are hundreds of thousands of books out there. Every genre feels well-worn. We have the voices of hundreds of writers swimming around our heads.
How can we stand out from the pack? How are we going to get someone to read our book instead of all the others ones? What’s going to make ours different and better?
Writers are often their own worst enemies in this regard. The type of person who will eventually write a successful novel is adept at spotting their own flaws, and mistakes are plentiful at the beginning of the novel-writing process.
What often stops would-be writers in their tracks is that their first efforts aren’t very good. And they know it. The voice sounds like another author’s voice, the plot feels like an imitation of a book they’ve already read, and it doesn’t start out feeling particularly original.
As with every writing problem, there is only one remedy: Keep writing. Keep pushing on. It feels like there’s nothing new out there, but as Truman himself finds out at the end of The Truman Show, that’s not remotely true.
You can write your way to originality, you can write your way to a voice, and you can write your way to a unique plot. It may not start out that way, but if you keep pushing through and keep trying you’ll end up in a place you never knew existed.
Don’t give up. There are still plenty of worlds to be discovered.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Kunst- und Raritätenkabinett by Hans Jordaens III
Matthew MacNish says
I felt this way, once, for a few months. It was after finishing my first manuscript. I was convinced it was the only story I had in me.
I was wrong.
Josin L. McQuein says
That's the brilliant thing about writing. When you've filled that map, and explored all of the hidden places of the world you know, you can pull out a blank piece of paper and start drafting an entirely new universe where the rain falls up and land floats over the sky – or whatever you want it to be.
Writers are dreamers, and dreamers are the proof that parallel realities exist.
Lisa Weikel says
Both of the above comments (Matthew, Josin) are brilliant.
My thanks to all three of you.
I find myself feeling far too often that I have nothing original to contribute to the world. It fills me with despair and seems to be the most effective way my inner naysayer has found to shut me up – completely.
I do my best to not even think about what's already been written. I just write with my gut and do my best to be as original as possible without stressing out about it being a super original book.
The "making of words" is not my nemesis. With 26 chromosomes, the number of life forms are infinite.
My nemesis is the cancerous cynicism of the publishing process.
I can manage the "making." But without even a scrap of validation, I'm looking at the opportunity cost of the hours that go into a novel, and then I'm looking at stuff around the house that hasn't been fixed since it broke four months ago…
And the cancerous cynicism moves into my lymph nodes.
John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur says
What great advice. A good reminder to all of us who sometimes are tempted to throw up our hands and say, "Oh, what's the use?"
There is no problem facing a writer that can't be solved by more writing. And brutal self honesty.
I am often startled by people who think for some reason that writing should be easy, and if they can't whip out a perfect novel on the first try, they're failures. And no matter how often you tell them it doesn't work that way, they just don't seem to get it.
Donna OShaughnessy says
There are indeed no "new" stories but there are new approaches, new characters, new ways to say THIS STORY IS MINE! ALL MINE! Thanks Nathan for the great reminder
Christine Monson says
As crazy as this sounds, I'm going through this right now. While working on my WIP, I picked up a book I've never read before to find out that not only is the story plot close to my own, the voice is similar as well. I thought, OH MY GOD! My book has already been written. But then someone said, all books have already been written. You just have to put your own spin on it and narrate it in your own voice.
So I hear what your saying, Nathan. We just have to make our story our own.
One good thing about all this is, if and when my book is published, I can tell readers, "If you like this book, then you're sure to like mine." And vice versa.
Susan Kaye Quinn says
Comparing your work to the entirety of published works is a good way to have a mental breakdown. #justsayin
Mirka Breen says
When you give it your all, you will feel *depleted* when done. When you survey the land, you will feel that when it comes to new and different,*it's been done.*
But as a wiser woman had said, the readers are new.
Even if a story isn't new, even if it's been told a thousand times, there isn't one person who could write it the exact same way as another person. That's why every story is unique; the author tells it in their own way.
laurie brunson altieri says
“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called "leaves") imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”
― Carl Sagan
Bruce Bonafede says
For me the necessary thing is to know – not just believe, but know – I've got a great fundamental idea. Then I can follow your advice.
The first play I wrote that was any good took three years to write. It went through five completely new drafts and two public readings – all of them "okay," none of them "great." Every time I threw everything out and went back to that basic, unshakable idea and started again. I learned new things with every effort and eventually had something that did justice to that idea. But without that foundation to fall back on it's easy to give up.
What Mary @ 5:44 said.
Julie Musil says
Love this advice! It's what I remember when I start comparing my work to other books. Thanks 🙂
Terri Kelley says
I just revised the first four chapters of my latest book…for the fifth time. I wonder if I'll ever move past Chapter 4 because I keep adding, changing, correcting…But, like you said, I will just keep pushing through and write.
Check out my kid's books at http://www.terrikelleybooks.com.
Rick Daley says
The best way to guarantee failure is to stop trying.
I believe we haven't even started to express all there is to say and feel and do in this world. New thought. New ideas. New ways of being and relating to others and the natural and supernatural world. New philosophies are best expressed through story so others can see and understand how our ideas and inspirations might work. It's important that artists keep moving the culture forward for greater enlightenment and resulting happiness of individuals and communities. When philosophies and spirituality stagnate, it usually indicates a dark age or a dark night of the soul as an evolving society needs spiritual awareness and cultural advancement to grow and evolve.
I feel like that when I read original published fiction – although I may be a bit biased as I've heavily read fanfiction and semi-original works for the past few years. I'm now used to a different style. (That and I read way to much anyway).
When I get it in my writing it's more like I can't see anymore where my story is going – I lose sight of what my goal in writing it was… then I end up confused and/or depressed about it.
Total side note coming from an insecure teenager but… is it normal to amass over 350 ideas in less than a year… I scare myself sometimes…
This is a wonderful post. Affirming and encouraging. I have a problem with trusting myself and my process as a writer, and I could feel myself relaxing when I read your post. Thanks.
Really hope you include this in your book. 🙂
April Laramey says
Sadly, it definitely feels that way sometimes. But then when I really give it a go I can usually find something new. Normally by flipping the standard situation on it's head.
Karen Clayton says
Good post. But that's just life. C'est la vie! I don't think it really matters though. Keep at it and you'll find your way in life! Everyone has a story and every world is just a little different somehow.
My 13-year-old son and I co-authored our own middle grade urban fantasy novel. It is similar to other titles out there, but still has its own distinct voice and world. National Parks were some of our favorite settings. They make for fun and beautiful locations – almost a world on their own.
Check out our story sometime. It was fun writing and inventing with a then tween.